Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: A Deckbuilding RPG Of Surprising Depth

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is like a cooperative RPG, with stacks of cards instead of a DM. Explore forgotten ruins and haunted towers, battle weird undead cultists and hordes of goblins, and collect magical treasure, building your character's abilities for the challenges ahead.

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (PACG) is a deckbuilding card game that roughly simulates the Pathfinder fantasy RPG. The players move their characters to different locations, uncovering useful loot or unpleasant monsters and traps as they explore. The goal is to track down the main villain and his or her henchmen and trap them before time runs out. Accomplishing this requires coordination among the players and some luck.

It's interesting that all the core elements of a fantasy RPG are present: exploration, monsters, traps, treasure, and even character advancement. What's more interesting is that PACG didn't start out that way. Designer Mike Selinker originally designed the game with a horror theme. Paizo publisher Erik Mona told me at last year's Gen Con (where PACG debuted) that they'd been looking for a fantasy board or card game to be part of the Pathfinder brand, so Selinker pitched it to them adapted to Pathfinder's fantasy theme and setting. It was such a success they sold out almost immediately. Indeed, it took me some time to get my hands on a copy to review.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: A Deckbuilding RPG Of Surprising Depth

PACG seems like a complex game, but at its core it's a deckbuilding game. If you're not familiar with the deckbuilding genre, players begin with a small deck of basic cards. In the course of the game they acquire better cards which are incorporated into their deck (and all the cards required to play, barring expansion sets, are included in the game – no random packs). There are competitive deckbuilding games like Ascension, and cooperative ones like Thunderstone. PACG is cooperative – in fact, it's a lot like Thunderstone. Locations are defined by stacks of semi-random cards. A location in town might only have a few monsters and a lot more items to find, while a dungeon might have a higher proportion of trap and monster cards. Location decks are shuffled, and when a player explores one, they turn over a card and deal with whatever they find.

If that's all there was to it, PACG would be a cool game with an extra layer of Pathfinder flavor. What makes it great is that you're not just building your deck for the game you're currently playing. Your character persists, along with the deck you built. For instance, if you find a great magic sword, you keep the deck together and will have that sword next time you play. You can't just keep everything you find, though. At the end of each game you have to return your deck to certain limits (based on the type of character), forcing choices about what items to keep and which to discard. Wizards are always looking to learn more powerful spells, while fighters want better armor and weapons.

The game is played in a series of scenarios meant to be played in order. They form a story, much like an RPG, and increase in difficulty. Completing certain scenarios will give your character an upgrade. You don't track experience points, you just get to make the upgrade at certain points along the "adventure path" (the proper name for a series of scenarios). You might be able to keep an extra spell card in your deck, or gain a bonus to your rolls when using certain abilities.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: A Deckbuilding RPG Of Surprising Depth

Conflict is resolved with die rolls, and the game comes with a set of polyhedral dice for this purpose. Characters have abilities that will be familiar to RPG fans: Strength, Charisma, etc. Instead of a static number, each ability is defined by the type of die you roll. A cleric with high Wisdom rolls a D12, while less wise characters roll a D6. When you fight a monster or disable a trap, you build a pool of dice using your abilities and the cards in your hand. You comrades can also add dice to your pool using certain special abilities. So you might end up rolling a pair of D12s, a D10, and a D4 to fight an ogre.

The key mechanic of the game is that you can use cards in your hand in a variety of ways, each with different benefits and drawbacks. Your deck also represents your hit points, so spending a card to your discard pile to use it brings you a little closer to death – and death is permanent, a real risk if you've been building a character over several scenarios. Cards can be discarded (simply sent to your discard pile), revealed (it stays in your hand after you play it), recharged (put at the bottom of your deck, so you aren't weakened and you'll redraw it eventually), buried (removed from play until the end of scenario), or banished (removed from play for good, it will no longer be in your deck at all, even when the scenario ends). A lot of the game's strategy and tension comes from working out how to best use your cards without killing yourself. Many cards have multiple effects depending on how you use them – discarding it gives you a stronger effect than recharging it. Class abilities make using certain cards better – wizards can recharge arcane spells instead of discarding them, for instance.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: A Deckbuilding RPG Of Surprising Depth

The fact that you're playing for the long haul is very exciting. It makes finding a special magic item or that spell you've been wanting much more impressive knowing it will have a lasting effect on your character's abilities. The game scales up to higher difficulties as you progress through the scenarios, and a lot of character abilities and villain abilities make surprising use of the game's basic mechanics. Progressing through the scenarios really drives you to play another game to beat the next terrible villain or find even better treasure. We put our character cards in clear card sleeves and use Sharpies to mark the sleeves instead of the cards themselves.

Of course, PACG is not without flaws. The original rulebook (since revised) is a bit fuzzy on certain aspects of the game. At this point, online FAQs will cover any questions you may have. Also, at times you may feel as though you're playing in a fishbowl, exploring your location, building your dice pool and making your roll, then waiting while the other players take their turns. There is certainly interaction and coordination among the players, but there could be more. Part of the problem is that the rewards for placing characters at the same location together are feeble or completely non-existent – you're often punished for teaming up by random attacks, or allowing villains to escape to open locations. And while the game is playable solitaire or with two players (the primary way my wife and I play), a small party leaves gaps in your available abilities. It can be tough to get past a location that requires a good Wisdom, for instance, without a cleric around.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: A Deckbuilding RPG Of Surprising Depth

While the threat of losing an advanced character makes the game more fun, it can be frustrating if a character does die. Restarting with a weak character means playing through the scenarios again so you can build up your gear and your upgrades. There is a threshold beyond which you can use more powerful weapons and start with a more advanced character, which helps. It's also tough to bring in new players if you have a group that's already played through a bunch of scenarios. They can either play as underpowered characters or create more advanced characters, but this feels a bit like "cheating."

The only other flaw I'd mention is that the adventure decks, which contain five scenarios plus new monsters, treasures and villains, and are required to advance the story, have a retail price of $20. That seems a little steep to me for a couple decks of cards. There are six adventure packs in the first adventure path, including the one you get with the base game. You can do the math on that.

Paizo has announced an organized play program called the Pathfinder Society Adventure Card Guild, which will debut at this year's Gen Con (I'll be reporting on that in a few weeks). Players can join sanctioned events at game stores, conventions, or even at home using a new adventure path called Season of the Shackles. Rumor has it pirates are involved. The event's host will provide the base game, so players only need a class deck to join the action.

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game has become a favorite at my house. I'd say it's earned a place on our game shelf, but honestly it almost never gets put away because we play it too often.